(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania will receive a $2 million boost from the federal government for its 988 crisis line and suicide hotline as part of a $130 million national grant program.

The funds will go toward staffing issues for the fourteen call centers across Pennsylvania that have struggled to retain and recruit operators.

The grant follows another one the state received in 2022 “that was really geared toward workforce (issues) and trying to help the call centers with the challenges that all sectors are running into, and that’s that everybody has workforce issues,” said Dr. Dale Adair, acting deputy secretary for the Department of Human Services’ Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “That is a challenge that call centers nationally and here in PA are facing.”

“The whole goal is to continue to work to expand and improve 988 and the crisis continuum,” Adair said. “The No. 1 thing for us, really, is around the workforce.”

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The 988 national hotline launched in July, with each state operating call centers to take local calls. In Pennsylvania, suicide rates have fallen in recent years, bucking the national trend, as The Center Square previously reported.

The grant is part of an $800 million spending package from the Safer Communities Act, with the funds administered through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The funds are supplemental, filling in some gaps and expanding services the DHS offers, such as building a platform online where call center workers can see what resources are available locally for whoever calls in. The money will also support coordination with other state mental health officials to learn from them, as well as evaluations to ensure programs are working as intended.

Aside from federal funds, state lawmakers have shifted more resources toward suicide prevention in recent years. Gov. Tom Wolf established a suicide prevention task force in 2019, and lawmakers also approved $100 million for mental health services in schools. The “erosion of the social fabric” and lack of community ties has also been a concern for youth mental health, as The Center Square previously reported.

It really is [important] to make sure that people have a sense of hope and that they don’t feel alone.

Adair emphasized that problems with finding 988 crisis line workers isn’t an isolated problem.

“The issues with crisis workers are the same issues affecting health care in general,” he said. “Health care work and crisis work in and of itself is challenging work. It’s stressful work. So you can have individuals who burn out from it; there can be individuals who enter the workforce who then decide ‘Well, this type of work is not necessarily for me and that there are jobs that might pay better and are less stressful.’ So all of those are factors.”

Building a pipeline for crisis workers to get their education and get certified matter, he said.

“It really is about growing our workforce within the crisis centers so that … we have sufficient numbers of people to answer the calls,” Adair said.

For Pennsylvanians struggling with suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, the 988 crisis line can connect them to local resources and help.

“It really is [important] to make sure that people have a sense of hope and that they don’t feel alone,” Adair said.

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

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